Tag Archives: Duke Ellington

Non-traditional Holiday Tunes

This time of year it’s hard to go out into the world without being bombarded by holiday music; whether you’re a fan or not, it can get tiring hearing the same tunes over and over again. As a balm for the holiday music assault, our music and film specialists at the Main Carnegie Library offer these suggestions for seasonally appropriate music that’s a little off the beaten path. Read their suggestions below!



Santa Claus Go Straight to the Ghetto” / James Brown

Santa Claus Wants Some Lovin” / Albert King

Back Door Santa” / Clarence Carter

Purple Snowflakes” / Marvin Gaye

A Five Pound Box of Money” / Pearl Bailey

Christmas in Jail” / The Youngsters

I’m actually a fan of holiday classics like Nat King Cole’s Christmas album. But when I need a change of pace, or want to put my dancing shoes on, nobody gets me in the holiday mood like James Brown. We also have a lot of soul holiday compilations, available on CD or through Freegal, with hidden gems like Pearl Bailey’s “A Five Pound Box of Money.”




Hansel and Gretel / Engelbert Humperdinck

Three Suites / Duke Ellington

Though Hansel and Gretel does not have a Christmas theme, it is often staged by many opera companies, including the Metropolitan Opera, at this time of year.  It does have gingerbread cookies… well, ok, children turned into cookies.  The music is fantastic and instead of Santa you get a creepy witch.

If you think Tchaikovsky needs a little swing, then Duke Ellington’s “Nutcracker Suite” from his album Three Suites  is for you.  Ellington and Pittsburgh’s own Billy Strayhorn put their stamp on a holiday classic.  Try the “Sugar Rum Cherry” track for a sample.



rundmc  diehard

Christmas in Hollis / Run D.M.C.

“Christmas in Hollis” is a cheerful song about the benefits of not stealing Santa’s wallet – though now that I think about it, the song never does tell us how Santa got his driver’s license back (it must have been a Christmas Miracle). It also mentions macaroni and cheese, and is featured in my favorite Christmas movie of all time, Die Hard.




I made my feelings known about the month of December in my Deathcember blog post a few years back, but I am still happy to help you find either the wholesome Christmas with Perry Como album or a blasphemous album by Mercyful Fate.




My Kind of Christmas / Christina Aguilera

Whenever I need a break from traditional Christmas song fare, I listen to the fabulous remix version of Mel Torme’s “Christmas Song” (you know…”chestnuts roasting on an open fire…”) as conceived by Christina Aguilera on her My Kind of Christmas CD!  It’s a thrilling combination of driving rhythm track with a smooth, slow melodic line on top! How about combining a traditional Latin text with a non-traditional 20th century poly-tonality (different keys + major and minor all at the same time), sung by a choir?  Check out Daniel Pinkham’s joyous “Gloria in Excelsis Deo” from his Christmas Cantata with the Washington Chorus and National Capital Brass on CLP’s Naxos Music Library streaming site.  Listen for the tremendous high B in the tenor section on the last chord!  




Traditional Christmas Carols / Pete Seeger

American Folk Songs for Christmas / Mike, Peggy, and Penny Seeger

These CDs include seasonal folk songs collected and arranged by Ruth Crawford Seeger which were first published in a songbook called American Folk Songs for Christmas in 1953. Ruth’s children, Mike, Peggy, and Penny Seeger recorded a double CD of these carols (released in 1989). Ruth Crawford Seeger’s step-son Pete chose three songs from her collection for his 1967 recording of folk carols. 61 years since the songbook was published, the selections and arrangements remain fresh and uplifting.




Fairytale of New York / The Pogues

This story of a man spending Christmas Eve in the drunk tank, thinking about a relationship torn apart by alcoholism and addiction, is one of the most popular Christmas songs in the UK. Performed in the style of an Irish folk song, the duet is sung by the Pogues’ lead singer, Shane MacGowan, and Kirsty MacColl, daughter of legendary English folksinger Ewan MacColl.

~ Happy holidays from the Music, Film & Audio Department


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American Originals

Among the composers represented at the Edgewood Symphony Orchestra “American Originals” concert I attended on May 12, two stand tall for their groundbreaking work.

Charles Ives (not Burl Ives), composer and insurance executive, was the son of Civil War bandmaster George Ives. George Ives was a musical tinkerer, who taught his son to actively listen to whatever was going on around him. Born in 1874, Charles Ives grew up in rural New England. The music of his youth—hymn tunes, parlor ballads, marches—appears as quotes throughout Ives’ compositions. The intense listening his father taught is there, too. If the choir of his home church sounded like it was singing in two keys at the same time, then Ives wrote music that incorporated two simultaneous keys.

Saturday night the Edgewood Symphony Orchestra performed Ives’ “The Unanswered Question.” A string orchestra played on stage, while a woodwind quartet and solo trumpet performed from the back of the auditorium. The three groups kept their own tempo and key, the trumpet asking and the flutes responding to questions that have no answers. Ives’ biographer Jan Swafford wrote of Ives, “Obsessed by the past, he wrote a music of the future.”

The Edgewood Symphony Orchestra presented a new arrangement of Duke Ellington’s “Sophisticated Lady,” made by John Wilson for trumpeter Roger Dannenberg and the Orchestra.

Duke Ellington was born in 1899, twenty-five years after Ives. While Ellington and Ives both shared a belief in the importance of the vernacular—melodies “hummed while men are at work and at play, and that are handed down from generation to generation,” as an Ellington interview from 1930 states—it is the contrasts between these two creators that feeds my curiosity. Specifically, each composer worked in a method unique to his temperament.

Ives composed in virtual isolation. Much of his music was imagined and lived in his own fantasies before taking form on the page. In contrast, Ellington’s creative output nearly always reflected his daily work with his orchestra. Rehearsals with his players shaped his compositions. Pieces were continually tempered and amended by his musical associates.

Ives musical laboratory was the whole world around him, his experiences steeped in the cauldron of memory. He invited no one else to share his musical pondering. Ellington tried out his compositions on everyone with whom he worked. Today we would say he workshopped his music.

Though neither of these men represented mainstream ideas about how a composer works, Ives and Ellington have emerged as two of our greatest American originals.

For further reading:

The Duke Ellington Reader

Composers’ Voices from Ives to Ellington: An Oral History of American Music


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